Exploring the importance of our oceans for tackling pressing challenges

20 Sep 2022

Marine Institute’s Dr Caroline Cusack. Image: Andrew Downes

As marine scientists gather in Dublin to discuss the latest research in this space, Dr Caroline Cusack tells us about her work in ocean observation.

Dr Caroline Cusack is a biological oceanographer at the Marine Institute, which is responsible for marine research, technology development and innovation in Ireland.

Cusack is involved in ocean observation research projects that monitor the health of our ocean. She also leads the Marine Institute’s annual ocean climate survey on the RV Celtic Explorer, which collects key oceanographic data in the deep waters to the west of Ireland.

‘The biggest challenge we face today in ocean observing is the collection of ocean data. The ocean is a difficult and at times a hazardous space to work in’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

I’m currently working on a number of projects; one example is the Horizon 2020-funded European project called EuroSea that focuses on improving and integrating the European ocean observing and forecasting system.

I’m one of the leads in the ocean health demonstrator, where we are actively using in-situ, satellite and modelled data to develop tools that can help improve our understanding of changing ocean variables. Our main focus is to produce data products and ocean forecasts that are useful for ecosystem assessments and extreme marine event early warning systems.

I also work with a group of highly skilled scientists that participate in the annual ocean climate research survey onboard the Irish research vessel Celtic Explorer. We go to sea once a year to collect physical and biogeochemical data in the Atlantic Ocean (shelf and deep waters).

The information we collect feeds into reporting efforts undertaken by organisations such as the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), where I currently co-chair a working group on oceanic hydrography and who produce an annual Report on Ocean Climate that summarises oceanic variability in the North Atlantic.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Increasingly, there is a greater focus on the importance of our oceans in addressing environmental and economic challenges, both nationally and internationally.

This week I’ll be attending and speaking at the ICES Annual Science Conference, which was organised by the Marine Institute in collaboration with ICES. This is a major marine conference taking place in Dublin.

Events like this conference are now more important than ever in providing a space for marine scientists from across the world to meet, present and discuss the latest science around supporting the sustainable use of our oceans and how marine science can provide solutions to challenges facing humanity.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

When I was in university, I met a lively and enthusiastic lecturer whose communication skills, curiosity and positivity encouraged me to do a PhD in biological oceanography.

I focused on harmful algal blooms research because it was exciting to be involved in something that could potentially help solve some societal issues.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

The biggest challenge we face today in ocean observing is the collection of ocean data. The ocean is a difficult and at times a hazardous space to work in and so, there is a lot less in-situ data collected when compared to the observing systems in place on land and in the air.

We need a major global effort, especially now in the UN Ocean Decade, to significantly increase essential ocean variable measurements to understand oceanic processes more clearly. Increased ocean measurements would facilitate a step change in the availability of knowledge we need in order to adapt to climate change, protect ocean health and ensure a more sustainable use of our ocean.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

In recent years, marine researchers have realised that scientific articles, while essential to underpin policy, have a very limited audience. Translating complex granular scientific messages to the public is important to address the challenges we currently face. A great example is the way in which scientists globally worked together to quickly distribute information relating to the Covid-19 virus to governments and the public.

In a recent JPI Climate-funded project funded I coordinated called CoClime (Co-development of Climate Services for Adaptation to Changing Marine Ecosystems), we involved stakeholders early to develop downstream climate services for policymakers and civil society. We co-created a number of ocean specific infographics together with colleagues in the Climate Action Regional Office for policymakers to communicate climate change impacts to the public.

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